An exasperated Michael Malone addressed reporters on Saturday night after the Denver Nuggets lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, their sixth in a row.
“The only way we are going to end this losing streak is if we find a way to play some defense,” Malone said. “I think our guys are playing hard...I understand that we’re undermanned, but the reality is, in the last six games now, I know for a fact we’re the 30th ranked defense.”
Malone is right. The Nuggets are the 30th ranked team in defensive rating in their last six games (technically 29th due to an abhorrent defensive performance from the Memphis Grizzlies on the same night). Before Denver’s losing streak, they ranked second in the NBA with a 101.3 defensive rating, trailing only the league leading Golden State Warriors. The most recent six games has dragged Denver’s defensive rating on the season all the way down to 15th. All of their early work wasted entirely in one fell swoop.
It’s easy to blame Denver’s injuries for the most recent fall from grace. Not having Nikola Jokić for four of the six games hurts Denver’s interior presence and rebounding. Denver has also been without Michael Porter Jr. for a significant period of time and Jamal Murray for the whole season. Though those stars are all know more of their offense, they’ve improved on the defensive end and help narrow the roles of teammates to focus in on less glamorous tasks. Denver has also lost rookie Bones Hyland temporarily (ankle sprain) and veteran P.J. Dozier permanently (ACL tear) which has muddied the rotation considerably.
But Michael Malone has never been one for excuses, and he remains disappointed in what the remaining healthy players have produced lately.
“If I didn’t think the players that are healthy and available could play better defense, I wouldn’t ask it of them. But I know they can. It’s my job to demand it, and more importantly, it’s my job to help them.”
A lack of attention to detail and poor execution has certainly hurt the Nuggets on the defensive end. Nuggets opponents are shooting 61.2% on two-pointers they’ve defended in the last six games, the highest percentage in the NBA during that span. In particular, they’ve allowed high percentages outside of the restricted area in the floater zone and in the midrange.
The pass GIannis Antetokounmpo makes to Bobby Portis should never, ever be allowed to be made. JaMychal Green gets pushed off his spot in help defense, doesn’t prevent the pass to a player crossing his face, and can’t recover in time to what is an easy jump hook.
JaMychal also continued his bad game into the third quarter. He’s in position to contest the below lob but gets started too late, doesn’t commit to the play, and is already looking frustrated before Giannis finishes the jam.
The Nuggets didn’t exactly improve defensively when they went small. If anything, there were more defensive mishaps in general. The Bucks ran a misdirection play meant for Monte Morris to lose track of his man, and lose track he did. It wasn’t until Grayson Allen was in the process of catching the below pass when Morris realized his defensive assignment wasn’t on the same side of the court anymore.
To cap it all off, Jeff Green didn’t exactly play strong defense against the Bucks. He was tasked with the impossible when he had to match up with Giannis, but in the moments where he wasn’t and the game was slipping away, the Bucks scored with ease, capped off by the wide open three below generated by zero action.
All of this to say, it’s difficult for Michael Malone to coach right now.
The loss to the Milwaukee Bucks highlighted just how battered and beaten down the Nuggets are right now. Malone would never admit it and blame injuries on anything, but I will. Injuries have killed Denver’s level of attention to detail while in the process of trying to survive the season. Denver is struggling to score on the offensive end, and it takes a lot of willpower to focus through tough moments on that end and earn results. That willpower, often used to match up and execute on the defensive end, can only extend so far on a prolonged period of time.
Jokić’s absence in particular has removed a crutch that has propped up everything the Nuggets do on both ends. On the offensive end, Jokić is the be-all-end-all for most possessions, as the Nuggets often run pick and rolls, post ups, hand offs, screening actions, and even isolations just to put the ball in Jokić’s hands. He creates the best possible shots for himself and others, and it’s easy to forget that until it’s gone for four games in a row.
On the defensive end, it’s harder to quantify but remains pretty clear that the Nuggets have lost their defensive identity without Jokić. They often play blitz coverage in pick and rolls with him on the court while mixing in some drop, let him defend post ups 1 on 1, and send help if there’s a perimeter mismatch. Everyone knows the gameplan when he’s out there, and no one seems to know the game plan when he’s sitting. The Nuggets have struggled defensively most years when Jokić sits, but this season in particular has been quite painful. A 98.9 defensive rating with Jokić on the court turns into a 114.6 defensive rating with him on the bench. That’s absurd, shows the progress Jokić has made, and shows the weakness of Denver’s defensive options behind him.
Michael Malone is feeling those effects more than just about anybody. He has tried to rely on his veterans to stem the tide, but it hasn’t worked. The Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green lineup has a plus-minus of -32 in 71 minutes. The two players Malone often turns to in bench lineups defensively (Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier) are limited and out for the season respectively. Austin Rivers has been hit-or-miss for the majority of the year from an execution standpoint. Second year player Zeke Nnaji may actually be the best defensive player on the bench, but coming off an ankle injury himself, it’s difficult to place the onus of the entire team on his shoulders.
Beyond those four bench players, the Nuggets have four other players to work with on their roster: Vlatko Čančar, Markus Howard, Petr Cornelie, and Bol Bol. Vlatko JUST made his season debut on Friday, and with the way he played, he’s in line for more playing time almost immediately. Howard and Cornelie are Denver’s two-way players, and while Howard has scoring potential and Cornelie showed some stuff in garbage time last game, it’s hard to count on them for anything. It’s hard to count on Bol for anything as well. He gave up on the Nuggets the minute he was out of the rotation at the start of this regular season, perhaps before that.
And that’s it. That’s what Malone has to work with right now. He’s relying on the right players, the only players available to him. The process has been good for getting Denver some baskets. The Nuggets sometimes just miss wide open shots and have done so all season. And with all of the work the Nuggets have put in to get things started offensively without their top options, the defense has slipped in the process. It’s natural. It happens.
Too often though, I see criticisms levied at Malone for various rotations, who gets the most shots, and whether the Nuggets are preventing easy shots on the defensive end. It’s a through line for every single team, not just the Nuggets. Perhaps for other teams, the criticisms are warranted.
It’s not a realistic criticism of Malone and Denver though. If the Nuggets were healthy, it would be one thing. This is a completely unfamiliar position for Denver though, with a roster built around the idea of having three max contract players to rely upon and not having any of them. Denver showed some weaknesses while it was just Jokić without Murray and Porter, but they were still winning games. Now, the prospect feels completely impossible, or at least just a one-off from Denver’s game against the Indiana Pacers earlier this season. Denver not having a legitimate seven-footer to start in place of Jokić has made playing defense a chore. Denver not having off-the-dribble threats off their bench to replace Monte Morris and Will Barton as they attempt to replace Murray is also difficult. It was going to be Bones Hyland, but ankle injuries have derailed the early part of his season as well.
The Nuggets have long been known as a team that succeeds in adverse situations. Backs against the wall in the 2017-18 season and they rattle off six straight wins to force Game 82 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Without three starters for a major portion of the 2018-19 season leads to the development of the Jokić-Murray two-man game. Jokić starts slow in the 2019-20 season and the rest of the roster picks him up with incredible defense. There’s Magnificent Seven game against the Utah Jazz. They follow it up with two separate 3-1 comebacks in the bubble. They rally together after Jamal Murray goes down in April of the 2020-21 season, along with several other guards, and still win over the Portland Trail Blazers in six games in a first round series.
This may seem like one of those moments that the Nuggets are failing, but the roster is too injured for Denver to seriously make it happen. Holding Malone and Denver to the previous standard set by the roster is also unfair. This is a different group, especially when they don’t have their stars available. In addition, the schedule the Nuggets have faced so far this season makes things difficult, with the Nuggets playing the seventh most difficult strength of schedule (according to Basketball Reference). Trying to do that without stars is an impossible task for anyone.
It’s important to take the long view on Denver anyway. Can they win a playoff series without Jamal Murray? Yes. They’ve proven it. Can they go far in the playoffs without Michael Porter Jr. fully optimized? Yes. They’ve proven it. Can they do much of anything without all three of Jokić, Murray, and Porter? No. They’ve proven that too.
It’s nobody’s fault. The Nuggets built a roster around the idea of having some or all of those stars. They’ve built a playbook around having some or all of those stars. Until they get some (or all) of those stars back, it’s unfair to levy any real criticism at the team they’ve put together. Because the group makes sense when players are fully optimized. We’ve seen what the Nuggets look like when the ideal starting lineup is fully healthy.
For now, Michael Malone deserves your patience. There’s little he can do right now. His hands are tied by Denver’s injury report, and the lack of trust in the deep bench is entirely warranted. All he and the Nuggets can do is wait patiently at this point, hoping that the stars return, and Denver’s schedule gets easier, before it’s too late.
Good luck on the upcoming seven-game road trip starting with the Miami Heat.